Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government concludes its first year in office on Tuesday, but any sense of celebration will definitely be muted, despite the coalition’s success last week in pushing through the Knesset three key pieces of legislation. For the first time since Tzipi Livni ran Netanyahu close to forming a government back in 2008, the prime minister can feel the presence of a serious rival for the premiership stalking the Knesset corridors: Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog.
Until now, the boyish-looking Herzog has always been viewed as the nice guy of Israeli politics: polite, well-educated, a scion of Israel’s aristocracy (his grandfather was Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, his father the country’s sixth president), but lacking the killer instinct needed in a political leader. Last week’s events in the Knesset certainly changed all that.
Herzog’s trenchant political attack on Netanyahu in front of the plainly bemused visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron broke all traditional protocol and etiquette surrounding the visits of foreign dignitaries to the Knesset plenum and laid down a marker for the future: Herzog is not as soft and cuddly as his childhood nickname “Bougie” suggests. Or as Herzog himself put it: “After this week, they’ll stop saying that I’ve had a British upbringing.”
Herzog’s transformation from leader of what many view as a party in terminal decline to a potential prime minister is not just based on one impressive Knesset performance; rather, his sudden status upgrade follows months of hard work in coalition-building among the opposition, leading to his ability last week to unite all members of the opposition in an unprecedented boycott of Knesset proceedings.
Of course, Herzog was helped in all this by the coalition’s arrogance in deciding to only allocate three days’ Knesset discussion to three of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in recent years: the military draft of haredim; raising of the electoral threshold and the holding of a national referendum before Israel makes any territorial concessions following the signing of a peace agreement.
While many members of the 52-strong opposition supported different elements of the proposed legislation – Labor, for example, backs drafting haredim into the IDF – the fact that the coalition resorted to emergency regulations to push through these laws and restrict parliamentary debate, had the effect of galvanizing a disparate group of politicians representing contrasting sectors of Israeli society into one united bloc. United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni expressed it best when he said: “I feel more comfortable sitting here with an Arab MK [outside the Knesset plenum] than with Netanyahu in the chamber.”
MORE WORRYING though for Netanyahu than Gafni’s sudden newfound friendship with Ahmed Tibi is Shas leader Aryeh Deri’s declaration that he sees Herzog as credible alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister.
Netanyahu’s whole political career has been built on winning the support of the haredim – it was only because of their votes that he first won the premiership in 1996 when he beat Shimon Peres – but after the events of last week he can no longer take their support for granted. While ditching his haredi allies in favor of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to form his present government may be viewed as simply reflecting the political reality of the time, his reneging on his promise to haredi MKs not to include criminal sanctions against draft-dodging haredim in the new draft law will definitely come back to haunt him.
Although the haredi sector is traditionally viewed as holding a rightwing outlook, Shas were part of Yitzhak Rabin’s government during the Oslo process when Israel first recognized the PLO, and the haredim do not in general share the national-religious movement’s devotion to placing the Land of Israel above all else. The haredi press has already begun pointing out to their readers the unfair distribution of government funds to settlements and settlement infrastructure over the Green Line, preparing them for a change in political direction.
Herzog understands something about Israel that Netanyahu refuses to see. When welcoming his British counterpart to the Knesset, Netanyahu said: “Welcome to the Jewish Knesset,” thus automatically disenfranchising nearly one-in-five of Israel’s Arab citizens, as well as the hundreds of thousands more Israelis whose Jewishness has not been recognized by the rabbinic authorities.
Israel is a multi-cultural society, made up of different ethnic and religious groups with, at times, competing needs and desires. For the country to progress, it needs a leader and a government sensitive to these different communities, and not a chauvinistic prime minister who uses the concept of majority rule to trample on and disregard those who are not part of the ruling majority. In today’s multi-cultural world, Netanyahu’s narrow-minded worldview is a throwback to the past, while Herzog is the man for the future.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.